John Donne

gigatos | February 10, 2022


John Mayra Donne (1572 – March 31, 1631) was an English Jacobite poet, preacher, and the greatest representative of the metaphysical poets of the time. His work is notable for its sensual and realistic style, including sonnets, love poetry, religious poems, translations from Latin, epigrams, elegies, songs, satires, and sermons. His poetry is renowned for its vibrant language and ingenious metaphor, especially when compared to the poetry of his contemporaries.

Despite his good education and talent for poetry, he lived in poverty for many years, relying too heavily on wealthier friends. In 1615 he became an Anglican minister, and in 1621 he was appointed dean of St. Paul Cathedral in London. Some scholars believe that Donne”s literary works reflect the following tendencies: love poetry and satires when he was younger and religious sermons in his old age. Other scholars, such as Helen Gardner, question the validity of this periodization because many of his poems were published posthumously (1633). An exception is Anniversaries, which was published in 1612 and Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, published in 1623. His sermons are also dated, sometimes specifically, stating day, month, and year.

John Donne was born in London, England, around the end of the year 1571 or between January and June 19, 1572; the third in a family of six children. His father, of Welsh descent and also named John Donne, was a steward of the Ironmongers Company in the City of London and a respectable Catholic, who avoided unwanted government attention without fear of persecution for his Catholicism. John Donne”s father died in 1576, leaving his wife, Elizabeth Heywood, the responsibility of raising his children. Elizabeth Heywood, also from a celebrated Catholic family, was the daughter of John Heywood, the playwright, and sister of Jasper Heywood, the translator and Jesuit. She was the great-niece of the Catholic martyr Thomas More. This tradition of martyrdom would continue among John Donne”s closest relatives, many of them being executed or exiled for religious reasons. Despite the obvious dangers, Donne”s family arranged for him to receive a religious education, which gave him a thorough knowledge of his religion that equipped him for the ideological-religious conflicts of his day. Elizabeth Donne, born Heywood, married, a few months after her husband”s death, Dr. John Syminges, a wealthy widower with three children. In the year 1577, Elizabeth, John Donne”s sister, died, as did two others, Mary and Katherine, in 1581. Before the future poet was ten years old, he experienced the deaths of four close loved ones.

Donne was a student at Hart Hall, now known as Hertford College, Oxford, from the age of 11. Three years later, he was admitted to Cambridge University, where he studied for three more years. He was unable to obtain a degree at both universities because he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy required of graduates. In 1591, Donne was accepted as a student at the legal school of Thavies Inn, one of the Inns of Court in London. In 1592, he was admitted to Lincoln”s Inn, another of the Inns of Court. His brother Henry was also a student before his arrest in 1593 for harboring a Catholic priest. Henry Donne died in prison of bubonic plague, causing John Donne to begin to question his faith in Catholicism.

During and after his studies, Donne spent a good deal of his considerable inheritance on women, literature, hobbies, and travel. Although there is no record stating precisely where he traveled, it is known that he visited the European continent and later fought along with the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh against the Spanish at Cadiz (1596) and at Azores (1597), witnessing the defeat of the Spanish flagship St. Philip and its crew. According to Izaak Walton, who wrote Donne”s biography in 1640:

At the age of 25, he was well prepared for the diplomatic career, which he seemed to be aiming for. He was appointed secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, 1st Viscount Brackley and Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and settled in Egerton”s London home, York House, Strand, near Whitehall Palace, the largest social and influential center in England at the time. During the next four years, Donne fell in love with Egerton”s niece, Anne More, a 17-year-old girl (some say she was 16 or 14), marrying secretly in 1601 against the wishes of both Egerton and her father, George More, Lieutenant of the Tower. This move ruined his career, costing him a short stint in Fleet Prison along with the priest who married them and the man who had served as a witness at the wedding. Donne was released when the marriage was proven valid, securing the release of the other two as well. Walton tells us that when he wrote to his wife in order to tell her about the loss of her post, he wrote after her name: John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done. Donne was able to reconcile with his father-in-law in the year 1609, receiving his wife”s dowry.

After his release, Donne had to accept a quiet, country life in Pyrford, Surrey. For the next few years, he lived with difficulty practicing law, depending on his wife”s cousin, Sir Francis Wolly, who housed him, his wife, and children. Since Anne Donne had a child almost every year, it was a generous gesture on her cousin”s part.

Although he practiced law and worked as an assistant pamphleteer for Bishop Thomas Morton, he was in a state of constant financial insecurity, having to care for an ever-growing family. Before his death, Anne gave him eleven children (including those who were stillborn). The nine who lived were named Constance, John, George, Francis, Lucy (after Donne”s patroness Lucy, Countess of Bedford, his godmother), Bridget, Mary, Nicholas, and Margaret. Francis and Mary died before they were ten years old. In desperation, John realized that the death of a child would mean one less mouth to feed, but he had no way to pay the burial costs. During this period, Donne wrote, but did not publish, Biathanatos, his bold defense of suicide.

First poetry

Donne”s early poems displayed a brilliant understanding of English society, coupled with a subtle critique of its problems. His satires were based on Elizabethan topics such as corruption in the legal system, mediocre poets, and pompous court men, excelling due to his intellectual sophistication and extraordinary rhetorical figure. His images of disease, vomit, dung, and plague helped him in creating a strong satirical world, populated by all the idiots and rogues of England. His third satire, however, talks about the problematic of true religion, a subject of great importance to Donne. He argues that it would be better to carefully examine one”s religious conviction, rather than blindly following any established tradition, for no one would be saved at the Last Judgment just by saying that “some Harry or Martin taught me this.”

Donne”s early career was also notable for his erotic poetry, especially his elegies, in which he employed unconventional metaphors, such as “a flea biting two lovers” relating to “sex.” In his Elegy XIX, To His Mistress Going to Bed, he practically undresses his mistress and compared caresses to the exploration of America. In Elegy XVIII, he compares the gap between his mistress”s breasts to the Helesponto. Donne did not publish these poems, although he allowed them to circulate widely in manuscript form.

Since love poetry was in vogue at that time, there are different opinions on whether the love poems Donne wrote were addressed to his wife Anne, but it is likely that they were. She spent most of their marriage either pregnant or caring for the children, which is assumed that they had a great physical attraction. On August 15, 1617, his wife died five days after giving birth to a dead baby in her womb; their twelfth child in a marriage of sixteen years. Donne grieved greatly over her death and wrote the work Holy Sonnets. He never remarried, which was quite unusual for the time, especially since he had a large family to take care of.

Donne was elected as a member of parliament for Brackley in 1602, but it was not a paid job and Donne struggled to give something to his family, depending excessively on wealthy friends. The fashion for coastal poetry of the time gave him the means to seek support and many of his poems were written for wealthy friends and clients, especially Sir Robert Drury, who became John Done”s chief in 1610. It was for Sir Robert that Donne wrote Anniversaries, (1611), and Of the Progress of the Soul, (1612). Historians are not certain as to why Donne left the Catholic Church; he certainly communicated with King James VI of Scotland and I of England, and in 1610 and 1611 he wrote two polemical articles against the Catholic Church: Pseudo-Martyr and Ignatius his Conclave. Although James was pleased with Donne”s work, he refused to rejoin the court and instead hastened to become an ordained pastor. Although Donne was reluctant at first because of his despicable feelings about a clerical career, Donne finally agreed to the king”s wishes and was ordained a pastor by the Church of England in 1615.

Donne became chaplain in late 1615, professor of theology at Lincoln”s Inn in 1616, and received a Doctor of Theology degree from Cambridge University in 1618. Later the same year, Donne became the chaplain to the Viscount Doncaster, who was at the embassy of the Germanic Princes. Donne did not return to his homeland until 1620. In 1621, Donne was appointed Dean of St Paul Cathedral, a leading (and well-paid) position in the Church of England, where he remained until his death in 1631. During his period as Dean, his daughter Lucy died at the age of eighteen. It was in late November and early December 1623 that she began to suffer from a fatal illness, possibly typhus or a combination of influenza, followed by an unrelenting fever for seven days. During her convalescence, Donne wrote a series of reflections and prayers on health, pain, and illness, which were published in book form in 1624 under the title Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Meditation XVII Later, Meditation XVII became known for its phrase “for whom the bell tolls” and the statement “no man is an island”. In 1624 he became Vicar of St Dunstan-in-the-West and in 1625 Chaplain to Charles I. Possessed of a good reputation, he was known as an eloquent and impressive preacher, and 160 of his sermons have survived, including the famous Death”s Duel sermon, delivered at Whitehall Palace before King Charles I in February 1631. His fatal illness is believed to have been stomach cancer. He died on March 31, 1631, without ever having published a poem in his lifetime, yet leaving a work rich in the intellectual and emotional conflicts of his time. John Donne was buried in St Paul”s, where a statue of him was erected (modelled on a drawing that was on his shroud), with a Latin epigraph probably written by himself.

Later Poetry

His illnesses, financial problems, and the deaths of his friends contributed to the development of a darker, more pious tone in his poems. This change can be clearly seen in An Anatomy of the World (1611), a poem Donne wrote in memory of Elizabeth Drury, the daughter of his protector, Sir Robert Drury. This poem deals with Elizabeth”s passing with extreme melancholy, using it as a symbol for the Fall of man and the destruction of the universe.

The poem A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy”s Day, being the shortest day, talks about the poet”s concern and despair over the death of a loved one. In it, Donne expresses a sense of total denial and hopelessness, saying that “I am every dead thing…recreated

The growing melancholy in Donne”s tone can also be seen in the religious works he began to write during the same period. He previously possessed a very strong belief in skepticism, and gradually gave way to a strong faith in the traditional teachings of the bible. Converted to the Anglican Church, Donne focused his literary career on religious literature. He became famous for his deeply worldly sermons and his religious poems. The searing lines of these sermons would influence future works of English literature, such as For Whom the Bells Toll, by Ernest Hemingway, which received that title from the passage in Meditation XVII, and Some Man is an Island, by Thomas Merton, which received that title from the same source.

Already near the end of his life, Donne produced works that challenged death and the fear it inspired in many men, based on his belief that those who die are sent to heaven to live eternal life. An example of this challenge is his Holy Sonnet X, from which come the following lines “Death, be not proud, though some have called it

John Donne is honored as a pastor by both the hagiological calendar of the Anglican Church and that of the Lutheran Church in the United States on March 31.

The John Donne monument, modeled after the picture above, was one of the few monuments that managed to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666, and now stands next to St Paul”s Cathedral on the south side of the choir.

John Donne became famous for his metaphysical poetry in the 17th century. His work suggests a great appetite for life and its pleasures, yet expressed deep emotion. He accomplished this through the use of concepts, wit, and intellect – as noted in the poems The Sunne Rising and Batter My Heart.

Donne is considered a master of the metaphysical concept, an overarching metaphor that combines two immense ideas into just one, often using imagery. An example of this is his equation of lovers with saints in The Canonization. Unlike the concepts found in other Elizabethan poetry, most notably Petrarchan concepts, which formed clich├ęd comparisons between more closely related objects (such as a rose and love), metaphysical concepts moves deeper into comparing two completely deferent objects, albeit sometimes by Shakespeare”s radical paradoxes and antitheses. One of Donne”s most famous concepts is in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, in which he compares two lovers separated by the stems of a compass.

Donne”s work is also ingenious, employing paradoxes, puns, and subtle yet remarkable analogies. His plays are generally ironic and cynical, especially when dealing with love and human themes. The most common subjects of Donne”s poems are love (especially in his youth), death (especially upon the death of his wife), and religion.

John Donne”s poetry represented a shift from classical forms to a more personal poetry. Donne is famous for his metrics, which were structured with alternating and clipped rhythms and which closely resemble colloquial language (this is why Ben Jonson, from a more classical school, said that Donne should be hanged for not keeping rhythm).

His work was heavily criticized over the years, with many critical responses about his metaphysical form. Donne”s followers in poetry tended to regard his work with ambivalence, while neoclassical poets regarded his concepts as abuse of metaphor. He was rediscovered by Romantic poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Browning, although his revival in the early 20th century by poets like T. S. Eliot tended to see him as an anti-Romantic.

Critical works

All the bibliographic material cited below is in English.

Not all sites with information about John Donne are in the English language.


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